Steven Goodman says he has been pretending to practice Buddhism for the past twenty-five years both in the United States and Asia. Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker had great fun interviewing Goodman, following his exuberant rap on Vajrayana practice, and tracking his wacky mind. Goodman is associate professor of Buddhism and Comparative Philosophy at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, and adjunct professor of Buddhism at the Institute of Buddhist Studies/Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. The following piece is condensed from a three-hour interview.
Dating back to the teachings of Shakyamuni, mindfulness—with respect to cultivating good heart and non-harm—is the basic practice of Buddhism. There are many styles of mindfulness practice, and in Tibet this wide variety was blended into coherent practice programs suited to the varying temperaments of students. Essential to all of these programs is the basic practice of calming down the mind so that one can be aware of the intimate connection between one’s intentions and the life situations they engender, which is a roundabout but actually more accurate way of speaking of karma, its causes and results.
Through mindful calming practices one slows down long enough to take a good look at at one’s habitual patterns; in doing so, one is actually able to discern this intimate connection between intentions and subsequent experiences. Any motivation or action that has as its basis the intention to discover and transform suffering is considered wholesome. Anything that blocks that discovery and transformation is unwholesome. One learns to mindfully guard the three karma doors: thoughts, speech and action. One is in “training,” meaning that one is working quietly with oneself to lessen the unwholesome intentions that one has towards oneself and others. This training facilitates access to the wellspring of one’s naturally good heart, the source of good energy from which one has been distracted. This source is a luminous, intangible wisdom energy, an inexhaustible treasure, also called Buddha nature.
It cannot be emphasized enough that mindfulness practices are truly foundational for those who train in Tibetan traditions. In time, such practices may lead to an insight into the nonexistence of any permanent, enduring, unique, or autonomous aspect of our experiences. All so-called “experience” is understood as transient display. The payoff, so to speak, is that one sees through the obscuring veil of emotional upset, which in practical terms means one is less at risk for being whacked by the various circumstances that come up in life. Increasingly things are more workable, less hysterically manifesting. Increasingly one has moments—gaps in one’s addiction to confusion and fascination with the stuff of experience—when there is an open, non-conceptual enjoyment, when one experiences a kind of interior luminosity that always seems to be there, beyond confusions and manipulations.
In Mahayana training, one cultivates these gaps. One trains to access these Buddha qualities, which inhere in every single sentient being, continuously. By refocusing on the mirror-like Buddha-nature of all beings rather than on the “dust” of habitual conditioning, one can cultivate the thought that “All beings are doing the best that they can all the time.”
At the level of Buddha-nature, we are awake to the reality of everything being karmically connected, intangibly and wondrously and continually. At this level, we know that there was never a time when we were not connected, never a time we will not be connected. This core insight might be considered the energetic truth of that to which we give the name “compassion”—being linked with the passions, both joys and sorrows, of all beings. And a bodhisattva is one who is undergoing training to actualize this compassionate wakefulness.
In the Tibetan practice of Mahayana, there are two divisions, which might be termed “regular” and “turbo.” The regular approach is the basic training as a bodhisattva during which one is said to be accessing the motive force which sustains one’s journey of spiritual transformation. In this context, one understands that the cause and source of kindhearted motivations is one’s Buddha-nature. Here “nature” means embryonic; it has not fully come out yet. And one may train for lifetimes to bring out and make fully evident this nature.
By contrast, the turbo approach, also known as Vajrayana, so-called tantra, is practice based on the result: fully manifest Buddha energy itself, nondual wisdom mind. The training program can yield its fruit in this very lifetime and in this very body. However, Vajrayana is really training for those who have already mastered the core insights of foundational mindfulness practices and are stable in their bodhisattva motivation.
In Vajrayana, the core training is to wake up the Buddha energy within, but not in an Arnold Schwarzenegger pump-it-up and look-at-me way, in order to be real powerful. That’s a superman misinterpretation of this practice and is a big defect which results in a super monster, a character known as Rudra, who is sort of crazed egoic inflation run amok. It happened in Tibet. It happens here in America. So, Tibetan teachers never tire of reminding the student that even though one may embark on Vajrayana practice, the sole motivation must be the altruistic intent to liberate all beings from suffering; otherwise, it is just spiritual grasping for bliss states and charismatic adventures. Many of my Tibetan teachers, who have had more than a little experience with Americans, have said that for the wondrous fruit of Vajrayana practices to fully ripen, it is essential for the creative, almost anarchic enthusiasm of Americans to be grounded through the practice of nonego, kind-heart, serious, deep, closed-mouth, humble practice. Why? Because our experience of intangible continuous non-dual wisdom energy is always at risk of being appropriated by egoic hegemonies, of being converted into tangible, temporary, dualistic habits: “this is good; this is better; this is best.” And always there is lots of backsliding into such habits. So we continue to train.
Having said that, how does one train? One visualization practice involves a recycling of vajra energy, meaning a continuous, intangible energy of lovingkindness, which is beyond manipulation or fabrication. You remember or imaginatively bring into awareness all the kindness that you have experienced in your life. You then imagine all the kindness that has been shared by all beings in the past and all the kindness that will occur in the future. You imagine this, now, as luminous and infinite, coextensive with the sky. And then you breathe it in. As you are breathing it in, it slowly and pervasively goes into the head, neck, shoulders, down, down, into the limbs and torso, and pelvis, and legs, so that your “karmic body” of awful aches—the somatic sedimentation of every trauma that you have experienced, whether as perpetrator or victim—is healed and transformed into an intangible body of kind and loving light. Completely. You know you have successfully transformed when the feeling of joyful gratitude arises—gratitude for the fact and miracle of kindness in the universe. With that gratitude you breathe out. You imagine, as you breathe out, that this healing energy of kindness goes into the hearts and bodies of all suffering beings, thereby transforming their karmic bodies into bodies of intangible luminosity. This practice is related to guru yoga—the re-awakening and linking with guru energy. Here “guru” is understood as the essence of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha—the ultimate refuge—and is not a tangible external person or force.
In tantric practice, very powerful energies of greed, hatred and distraction can be transformed. That’s why it is sometimes called the path of transformation. You can transform affective energy into wisdom energy. In Hinayana approaches, one might say, “Avoid and guard against the poisons of affect.” In Mahayana they say, “Know how to apply the antidote. Lovingkindness for aggression. Equanimity for confusion….” In Vajrayana they might say, “The energy of distraction and aggression is itself no different from the energy of Buddha wisdom. Train in recognizing this. Train to transform the energy of upset into the energy of joy.”
There are even practices using emotions as the path. For instance, in deity yoga if one is very angry, one can immediately contact that anger energy before it spills out into harming oneself or other people and transform it into the visualization of a highly energetic wisdom being. But to do these practices, one has to have had an initiation with a qualified teacher who has truly manifested the sublime qualities of this intangible wisdom energy. Such empowering initiations cause a germination of one’s Buddha qualities and establish one as a mature Vajrayana practitioner at the level of intention. Then one works with deity yoga as repetition of certain key elements of that initiation to ripen those germinating qualities.
There are other imaginative practices that are beyond wonderful. One practice focuses on the enlightened qualities known as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the one “who looks down, or regards” all beings with the gaze of compassion. You imagine a figure of Avalokiteshvara on the top of your head. For Westerners this may be just the sense of a white, luminous ball. You have to understand that this white, luminous ball is your own inmost Buddha nature; it is the essence of all the Buddhas of the past, present and future. It is a defect to imagine it is only on your head, so you imagine it on the heads of all beings in all of the six realms. Realm by realm, you contact and you feel the beings who live and suffer in each one. You start with the hell beings, and you reflect that through the distractive habit of aggression beings are born in hell realms. You feel the extreme heat and cold of their experience. Then as you chant “om mani padme hum” according to the melody transmitted by your teacher, you imagine that these six syllables are the aural essence of compassion. You imagine that soothing, calm, compassionate rays of light are going from the luminous ball of Avalokiteshvara on your head and on the heads of all beings directly into the hearts and mind streams of all hell beings. Feeling this, they are then transported and purified into the realm of compassion.
You go through all six realms that way. After you imagine that all beings have been contacted by this soothing energy, you then dissolve the visualization, reflecting that henceforth, every form you see, every sound you hear, whether it’s lovely or not, is a form of compassionate energy wanting to communicate. Every thought that you experience, or other people experience, no matter how much judgment or tension there may be, is actually the enlightened energy of compassion. Then, you imagine that all phenomena and all experiences are but the open magical display of compassion, where openness and compassion are never disjoined. Then you sit and you meditate with your eyes open or closed, for as long as you can, resting in this state.
Since there could easily be ego in this practice, there has to be refuge so that one’s intention is very pure. So you take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Then you generate the altruistic intent that the practice you are going to do will be for the benefit of all beings. Then you do the practice. Finally, when the main practice is finished, you dedicate the merit, which means you form a final intention: “May what I have done truly be of benefit to myself and all beings, and whatever benefit there is I offer that up to the welfare of all beings.”
So this is a bit of silly talk, about very important things, a kind of turbo spin of the vajra heart. May it be of benefit.